Youth Day

Today is Youth Day in South Africa. It’s a national holiday, so we don’t have work today, although certain branches of the hospital are still open. I get the sense that Youth Day is something like Veteran’s Day in the U.S.–profoundly important to some, nothing more than a welcome day off to others. The roots of Youth Day (formerly known as Soweto Day), stretch back to 1949 when the Eislen Commission recommended drastic changes to the structuring of non-white education, which were implemented in the Bantu Education Act of 1953. One of the major changes was that funding for schools was to be based on the population which the school served. In essence, the Act mandated that taxes on Africans pay for African schools, taxes for Indians pay for Indian schools, taxes on Coloureds pay for Coloured schools, and taxes on Whites pay for White schools. Since the non-White communities tended to be pretty impoverished, this resulted in a huge disparity in resource distribution amongst schools.

In 1974, the apartheid government forced students to learn (and teachers to teach) in Afrikaans under the Afrikaans Medium Degree, which mandated that classes be conducted 50-50 in English and Afrikaans. This was due in large part to the decrease in Afrikaans-speaking non-White South Africans (due to the association of Afrikaans with the oppressive apartheid government). In 1975, the government tightened the stricture, insisting that Afrikaans be the medium of instruction for mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies with English being used only for general science and practical arts starting in Standard V (7th grade). Indigenous languages could only be used in religion, music, and gym instruction. For many black South Africans, this was the last straw. Teacher organizations protested the decree. Opponents even tried to use the language of the government against the decree, insisting that if “Africans” were being forced to return to tribal “homelands” (Bantustans) and live “traditionally,” they could not be expected to speak Afrikaans (interestingly, although the British had also been pretty oppressive, most black Africans saw English as preferable to Afrikaans and protesters even insisted that instruction be carried out in English). The government refused to hear it and on June 16, 1976 students from all over Soweto Township in Johannesburg took to the streets in protest.

Somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 students showed up at Orlando Stadium that morning to march peacefully in protest. They found their initial march route barricaded by police and so began to walk instead towards Orlando High School, so as not to provoke the police. Incited by students throwing rocks, police Colonel Kleingeld fired a shot into the crowd, causing panic and initiating one of the bloodiest segments of apartheid history. Some 23 people were killed in the rioting that day, and several hundred were killed in the subsequent days (Reuters reported “more than 500” deaths, while the government claimed only 23 died) by roving police snipers and the South African Army.

The brutality of these events are largely credited with awakening the international community to the horrors of apartheid and revitalizing the internal anti-apartheid struggle (the slaughter of African schoolchildren led a lot of White South Africans to start protesting against the government too). I keep hoping there will be some sort of commemorative ceremony, but it seems unlikely here in Ladysmith. Most businesses are still open and even the World Cup continues as if today were any other day. Even Bafana Bafana is playing tonight. Clearly, soccer stops for no one.

UPDATE: Bafana lost 3-0 to Uruguay tonight. The vuvuzelas are silent.

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